New forfeiture rules welcome

New forfeiture rules welcome

This country has a long history of limiting the authority of government to push people around. It's about time the state's forfeiture law recognized that important ingredient in maintaining liberty.

It ought not be a matter of special citation — let alone praise — when Democrats and Republicans put their heads together and do the right thing for the right reason on the legislative front.

But the knuckleheads in Springfield do it so rarely that it's worthy of note — like when a pig heads out on an airport runway, fires up its afterburners and goes screeching up toward the heavens.

So, in that context, it should be noted that Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, signed legislation passed with bipartisan support (56-0 in the Senate and 100-1 in the House) aimed at restoring balance — in other words, due-process rights — to law enforcement's authority to seize property they think was either used in or is the product of criminal behavior.

To put it simply, police officers in Illinois will no longer be able to seize property — cars, money, etc. — based on suspicion. If they want property forfeited to the state, they'll have to prove in court why that should happen.

"In the past, civil forfeiture just required a belief — a belief — by law enforcement that a particular asset might have been used or could be useful in the execution of criminal behavior without any proof," Rauner said.

The governor correctly called that kind of lax standard "a violation of America's core principles."

It is no insult to law officers to say that they should not be trusted with the authority that was curtailed in this legislation. No government official anywhere should have the kind of power the old law allowed because any power that can be abused will be abused.

Governmental authority to seize property in connection with criminal arrests, even traffic stops, has been the source of multiple horror stories across this country. Even now, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the target of well-argued criticism that his embrace of expanded forfeiture authority in place under President Barack Obama is too broad.

Congress is in the process of addressing that issue on the federal level. It's good to see our legislators doing so on the state level.

The problem is obvious to anyone who takes a look at the issue.

Why should any governmental entity be authorized to take an individual's property without having to prove in court why it's related to criminal conduct? Further, why should any citizen subject to a forfeiture action have to hire a lawyer and spend money to get back what never should have been taken in the first place?

They shouldn't.

Under the bill Rauner signed, the government will bear the burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property was used in some illegal endeavor.

In the event there are no criminal charges stemming from the seizure, the government will have to prove by clear and convincing evidence, a tougher standard than preponderance of the evidence, that the property should be forfeited.

The new law also requires the Illinois State Police to establish and maintain a public database that reports the details of their forfeiture cases. Given ISP's culture of excessive secrecy and resentment of public accountability, that's a welcome addition to the new rules involving forfeiture.

It was encouraging to see that, in addition to lawmakers of both parties, the legislation was also supported by state police Director Leo Schmitz. It's unclear if Schmitz had sincere doubts about the old authority or was just persuaded that the "suspicion" standard was simply indefensible, but his presence at the bill-signing sends a positive message about his department's commitment to follow reasonable rules while enforcing the law.

The concept behind asset forfeiture is a good one — it's intended to take the profit out of crime by stripping wrongdoers of the proceeds of their criminal activities or the expensive tools they use to perpetrate criminal acts. It's been particularly effective when directed at drug dealers.

But the downside is that law-enforcement agencies often are the beneficiaries of those forfeitures, creating a perverse incentive for them to seize cars or cash for their own good as well as the public good.

Because that approach lays the groundwork for inevitable abuse, Illinois' new forfeiture law is, unlike so many other pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly, a welcome addition to Illinois statutes.

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fvtomasch wrote on September 22, 2017 at 12:09 pm

There is still one forfeiture tactic that the local taxing bodies have at their disposal. It is called EXCESSIVE TAXATION. Here in Rockford and most other towns your home can and will be taken away if you are delinquent on your tax bill. Our tax rate is 15.1% of 1/3rd value. Approx $6,644.00 on a 150K home.Many homes were foreclosed on not because of mortgage rates but the taxes are more than the mortgage. Nobody is building equity. This is legal theft of equity. It is hard to hold on to your home with high taxes. We need a flat 1% cap on properties. There has to be a way homeowners who are cashed strapped not to lose their homes to taxes and the cities and towns are always Broke. This is a different form of forfeiture that must be addressed. Just a thought!!!

G. Fawkes wrote on September 23, 2017 at 8:09 am

I am so glad to see the asset seizure law changed, it was open to abuse from day 1 the way it was. Good start for other reforms including the above mentioned property tax problem